As the population of Frederick County ages, more health care services are needed. To help address this need, the Career and Technology Center will begin a new program this school year focused on training students for the physical and occupational therapy fields.

Kristine Pearl, supervisor of career and technology education for Frederick County Public Schools, said they decided to offer the program after a focus group was held in collaboration with Frederick Community College and the need was heard loud and clear.

“We know that health care is a huge need in Frederick County, physical rehabilitation in particular,” Pearl said. “There is a tremendous need as our local population is aging. They are in need of more physical therapy assistants to help provide services.”

The program description on the CTC website says the program will incorporate concepts of, “physical therapy, occupational therapy, kinesiology and athletic training ... musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiopulmonary and integumentary related injuries,” among others.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, interest in the physical therapy field has been growing steadily and employment of physical therapists is expected to grow 28 percent from 2016 to 2026 as the baby-boomer generation grows older.

Additionally, a 2013 study titled “The Needs Assessment of the Aging Population in Frederick County” found the senior population of Frederick County is projected to more than double by 2030.

Alex Dunheimer, 17, a rising senior at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, plans to take part in the program. He said he became interested in sports medicine last year, which led him to physical therapy.

“Once I saw that this was available, I became completely interested in applying,” Dunheimer said. “I’m also looking to pursue a career in physical therapy, so this seemed like a logical way to learn more about it. It was very exciting to see classes opening up at CTC about it.”

Dunheimer is one of 24 students selected for the program. More than 80 FCPS students applied, according to Pearl.

Dunheimer thinks the growth in interest is also due to the wide-ranging opportunities and concentrations available within the larger scope of physical rehabilitation.

“There is so much to do in the field, so maybe that appeals to a lot of students, that there’s a lot of jobs available,” Dunheimer said. “It’s very different from sitting in a cubicle for an office job. ... It’s more relaxed and puts you in a less stressful environment ... and the hands-on part definitely interests me.”

Zach Howard, the instructor hired to teach the program, agrees.

“I think there is just a general interest to study within [physical rehabilitation], and health care is such a broad atmosphere,” Howard said. “In order to be a health care professional, you really have to be selfless and want to help others. And I think a lot of our students seek to do that in their future careers.”

Howard, a graduate of Walkersville High School, has a master’s degree in athletic training as well as a doctorate in education. He spent many years working as an athletic trainer for both Frostburg State University as well as other physical therapy establishments. Howard said he hopes to help students find their passion.

“I think my main role is to expose them to not only physical therapy but the foundation level of knowledge that is necessary to go into any path with confidence, and knowing that you have the knowledge to excel regardless of where you choose to plant your flag,” Howard said.

In addition to the 24 students selected for the program, Howard said there will also be 11 to 13 “jumper” students coming from other health-related programs offered at CTC who have already completed the two foundational courses required.

“We decided to open that opportunity up to them if they decided they were more interested in physical therapy or rehab as a future career path,” Howard said.

Students who are part of the regular cohort will take three courses to complete the program — Foundations of Medical and Health Science, Structure and Functions of the Human Body and Physical Rehabilitation. Each student will also be required to complete an internship in a professional health care setting.

Some students, including Dunheimer, have already completed the first two foundational courses and will have to complete only the physical rehabilitation course and internship.

The program was almost entirely paid for through a $105,000 grant, according to Pearl. It funded a summer training session for Howard to learn more about the required curriculum and for the equipment for the classrooms.

Walk into one of the portable classrooms on CTC’s campus, and it looks almost identical to a professional physical therapy office. There are treatment tables with the CTC logo splashed across them, exercise equipment such as a treadmill and weights, state-of-the-art taping tables that will allow students to practice athletic taping methods, and machines that will help students study and practice cryotherapy and thermotherapy.

Sandy McCombe Waller, associate vice president and dean of health business technology and science at FCC, said FCPS and FCC wrote their grants in tandem with the idea of providing students a direct path from high school to higher studies.

Waller said once the FCC program is launched, students will be offered a dual enrollment option which will allow them to acquire FCC credits for earlier application for selective admission to the PTA program. The goal is to transition seamlessly to FCC to earn an associate degree in the field, as well as become a licensed physical therapy assistant.

“We are in continual pursuit of innovative opportunities to serve all students, through innovative and collaborative partnerships,” Waller said in an email.

The FCC program is scheduled to launch in spring 2022, once the college receives accreditation approval.

Although he will not be able to take advantage of the partnership, Dunheimer thinks it will be beneficial to students.

“It’s smart to have a class just to get you more prepared to learn about that material before you get to college,” Dunheimer said. “It’s nice to have the opportunity to learn as much as you can about it.”

Follow Katryna Perera on Twitter: @katrynajill.

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